TALLAHASSEE — Hours after Thursday’s unexpected request by Gov. Ron DeSantis for lawmakers to return to Tallahassee and pass laws against vaccine mandates, Florida’s top GOP legislators had a surprise of their own.
Florida should remove itself from the direct federal oversight of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, they said. The proposal was a reaction to President Joe Biden’s administration announcing a rule, to be enforced by that agency, that says private businesses with 100 or more employees must require their workers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or undergo weekly testing.
Instead of submitting directly to federal regulations, Florida would create its own workforce safety program — an idea that could cost millions and make the state the first to withdraw from direct Occupational Safety and Health Administration oversight in nearly 40 years.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, wrote in a joint statement that the federal agency’s regulations are “onerous” and that a state program could “alleviate” state employers and employees.
Simpson has a history with those regulations. The environmental cleanup company he owned was fined $18,000 by the agency after a worker fell and died in 2014.
The roofing company owned by another top GOP senator, Keith Perry of Gainesville, was fined nearly $50,000 for six incidents between 2011 and 2017, including two in which employees fell and were hospitalized with serious injuries. The fines were later reduced to just over $21,000.
State lawmakers hadn’t proposed leaving the federal agency until Thursday in the hours following DeSantis’ call for a special legislative session.
Florida’s conservative leaders have bristled at the new Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule. Attorney General Ashley Moody and DeSantis said they plan to fight it in court.
But Simpson and Sprowls took DeSantis’ ideas a step further, proposing to exempt Florida from Occupational Safety and Health Administration oversight and instead create a state workforce agency.
“Unfortunately, (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) is now being weaponized by the Biden Administration not to protect workers, but to institute an illegal and unconstitutional nationwide vaccine mandate that robs the American people of the dignity of work,” Simpson said in a statement Friday. “If Florida withdraws from (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration), our state plan would certainly maintain, or exceed the effective safety standards that currently protect employees and employers in our state.”
Former Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials say Florida forming its own program would hardly lessen any burden supposedly brought about by federal regulations — for two reasons.
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First, any state program would still have to be approved by the federal government. Second, as Simpson noted, agency rules say the program would have to “be at least as effective” as federal workplace standards.
“You’re not going to get very far if you tell the feds you’re going to adopt a state OSHA plan so that you don’t have to adopt federal OSHA standards,” said Jordan Barab, who served as the deputy assistant secretary of labor at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from 2009 to 2017. “It makes no sense.”
Under agency rules, states are allowed to form their own worker safety programs. Some 21 states and Puerto Rico have programs protecting private and public sector workers. The most recent of those plans to be certified was for New Mexico, in 1984. Another six states have plans covering only public sector employees, but they rely on federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulators for the private sector.
Currently, Florida’s private sector is regulated by the federal government, and state and local government employees have no workplace regulation, Barab noted. That means no matter what kind of plan Simpson and Sprowls submit to the federal government, more workplaces in Florida would be subject to regulations.
Debbie Berkowitz, another former senior Occupational Safety and Health Administration official during President Barack Obama’s administration, said some states with their own workforce programs enforce regulations in a more lax manner than federal inspectors. But even those states have to maintain a certain level of enforcement, or else the federal government can intervene.
“If you decide that you want to operate in a world where employers can do whatever they want to workers ... you’re not going to get that with a state plan,” Berkowitz said.
A more relaxed regulatory environment could be what Simpson and Sprowls ultimately want out of a potential Florida program. But even if a proposal from the state wins federal approval, that process would take years. California, for example, waited four years between its plan’s initial approval and its certification. Plus, Florida would have to create a new agency dedicated to enforcing the standards, which would cost taxpayers millions every year.
In a statement Friday, Sprowls said any state program would “reflect the values of our state while upholding worker safety standards.”
It’s not clear that federal regulations in Florida are all that onerous. A 2021 report by the labor union AFL-CIO showed that Florida had the fewest inspectors per workers in the nation. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration only had one inspector for every 164,520 workers, the union reported.
Sometimes, the federal government misses major workplace hazards in Florida. A 2021 series of stories in the Tampa Bay Times highlighted how the Occupational Safety and Health Administration failed to detect serious problems at a Tampa lead smelter. Only after the Times series detailed numerous safety hazards for workers did federal regulators conduct a thorough investigation into the factory. Eventually, the company that owns the factory, Gopher Resource, was fined more than $319,000 by the agency.
Simpson’s asbestos clean-up company, Simpson Environmental Services, was fined $25,200 after a worker fell on the job and later died in 2014.
According to safety administration records available online, the worker was scraping asbestos and removing fireproofing material from beams when the person fell. The worker was taken to a hospital and died from head trauma six days later.
Simpson Environmental Services was initially fined $25,200, which was later reduced to $18,270. The four violations listed online include the absence of scaffolding guardrails that could prevent a fall.
Simpson has since sold the company, and he couldn’t speak about the case, spokesperson Katie Betta said. Betta added that Simpson has owned many companies over the years and they have an “impeccable safety record.”
“As a business owner for more than 30 years, I have always respected and relied upon the proper role (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) plays in monitoring workplace safety,” Simpson said in a statement.
The roofing company he owns has been cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration six times since 2011, including twice after workers fell and were seriously injured.
In 2017, an employee working on the roof of a two-story residential building fell while carrying roofing materials, according to the agency’s website. The rope portion of his fall protection system was too long, and he fell 21 feet. He was taken to the hospital and treated for a fractured vertebra. The company was initially fined $5,926 for not reporting the incident within 24 hours, but it was later reduced to $0.
Later that year, an employee was on the roof of a three-story building standing on top of old shingles and debris, tossing the materials into a trash bin, according to the agency’s website. When the materials he was standing on shifted, the employee fell 25 feet, and he was taken to the hospital for a fractured pelvis, a dislocated left wrist and torn tendons in his left hand.
The company was fined $18,108 for not having a fall protection system in place, which was later reduced to $9,054.
Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this story.